Intellectual Salon (and Great Eats) in Kent, Where Funding and Disciplinarity Is Discussed

Last night, I joined my friends at Bert and Robin Bellinson’s house to break bread and talk about life in the academy with fellow graduate students as well as faculty. These dinners have become a de facto salon in the semi-rural isolation of Kent State University. To top it off, Bert is a daring chef who heightens the experience of mundane foods. On this particular evening, he made a tasty combination of lamb, potatoes, and salad. My favorite food that Bert makes is barbecue, which in my opinion, is second to none (that’s why Y and I asked him to cater our wedding).

Two conversations remain with me today. The first has to do with budget cuts to Ohio education and in particular to Kent State University. According to D, faculty have been enrolled as ‘students’ to in an online class headed by the ‘teacher’, Provost Robert G. Frank. The ‘class’ is titled, “Let’s be Frank: Discussions with the Provost,” and its purpose is to invite faculty to suggest ways that spending can be reduced from their perspective within the university. Unfortunately, graduate students on appointment have not been invited to this conversation, so I have decided to provide my thoughts here.

Kent State could reduce its spending and simultaneously reallocate spending to departments in need through these suggestions. First, I agree with D that the first step in any kind of budgetary cutbacks can only be accomplished by prioritizing spending with the university’s mission–education and research–being the top priority. Everything after the fulfillment of our mission as a place of higher education would receive reduced spending priority. Second, the redesign, defacing, and alteration of the campus should stop immediately. There should be no more expensive, full color, movie screen sized pictures of students with catchy slogans put up on buildings around campus. What is the real purpose behind these tacky displays of largess? Are you trying to convince students that they are in the right place for their education, or are you hitting prospective students with more advertising than substance? Regardless, the money used on those signs could easily fund one, possibly two, associate professorships. Alternatively, that money could have been excised from our expenditures in the past. Unfortunately, they are there now, but no more should be erected.

Second, I believe that the administration, particularly the president, provost, and other top administrators, should volunteer to take a substantial pay cut. Would it not only save the university money if the administrators, who are among the highest if not highest paid persons at Kent State, slashed their paychecks to save the university money and signify their dedication to making the university succeed financially? Also, the administration doing this would send a strong signal to the faculty who some believe should take a pay decrease (remember: food stamps are an option to make ends meet).

Third, the school should not take money away from academics to support its underperforming sports teams. Irregardless of the success or failure of Kent State’s teams, the money for supporting a robust program should come from other means than detracting from the educational and research missions of a university. I understand that sports are a way to attract students and donations while providing a revenue stream to the university through ticket sales and merchandising, but there should be a public and strict adherence to a no-academic money for spots policy.

And finally, the administration should publicly reject the proposed clock tower or what looks tragically like a sniper’s nest. Some school administrator(s), wants to renovate the public parking area in front of the student center to reduce parking for a green space crowned with a stage and clock tower. Unfortunately, this clock tower, which will further cost the university money that it shouldn’t spend or should spend elsewhere, looks reminiscent of the observation tower at the University of Texas, which has experience student shooting tragedies in 1966 and 2010. Furthermore, Kent State has its own dark history with student shootings on May 4, 1970. Obviously, a single or all administrators with authority of this proposed project have no sensitivity or empathy toward the historic events and the people involved. We do not need a new structure on campus with no clear purpose that conjures images of these tragic events. Furthermore, it looks like a sniper’s nest with visibility over much of the central campus. I would feel uneasy walking in that large area with this much more dangerous Eye of Sauron watching over me.

The second topic of discussion had to do with disciplinarity, or the adherence to discipline. One person at the table, who is not an English Literature PhD, was troubled by the tensions within the English discipline. Unfortunately, some of us English Literature folk did not feel that our discipline needed justification, but some folks rallied with a strong defense of the discipline and its historical development. As I have said to others, I believe the strength of English, or in my application Cultural Studies, is that it ties into other disciplines. It is an aggregator, diffuser, and processor. Our discipline ties together seemingly divided disciplines through the unifying network of culture.

The argument was made that English literature should be concerned with literature and nothing else. Literature, however, is dependent on everything within the human limit of the universe. What has been experienced, could be experienced, will be experienced finds its way into literature and other cultural works, or texts in the general sense. The social, psychological, and science all play a part in the construction of texts through the creative effort of people. It seems silly to think that we should agree to read literature divorced from the reality all around us as if literature itself was walled away from the rest of the universe. In fact, literature and texts are imbued with and by the universe and all that humanity knows and imagines about the universe. There is no one continuum of narrative possibilities that can be studied using antiquated concerns, but instead, narrative extends in all directions, in all dimensions. To worry only over the grammar, meter, or other nuts-and-bolts issue with literature and texts seems to tie the hands of intellectuals who obviously have much more to offer (as evidenced by the explosion of critical approaches to literature and culture) not only in regard to the historical contextualization of a text but also in regard to the many ways cultural works create meaning and categorize our understanding of the world. I don’t believe that English Studies or the broader moniker Cultural Studies needs to justify itself as long as its practitioners can each articulate in a meaningful way the pedagogical and research purposes of their work–particularly as the university continues to develop more interdisciplinary approaches to doing the work of an increasingly (or perhaps differently) complex world.

It was a stimulating evening, and I would like to thank B and R again for hosting these wonderful salon-like dinners.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.